Much of our knowledge on the evolution of humanity and its origins depend on skeletal remains. However, it is notoriously hard to find ancient bones and teeth. As such, there is still very much left to find out or to clear away on the evolutionary history of the Homo sapiens.
Now, a recently released paper claims to have found a new way of collecting ancient DNA. One that doesn’t require bones or teeth.
Details and a study paper on the matter were released in the journal Science. Svante Pääbo, the director of the Evolutionary Genetics Department of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, stated the following.
“By retrieving hominin DNA from sediments, we can detect the presence of hominin groups at sites and in areas where this cannot be achieved with other methods.”
As such, Pääbo pointed out the utility of these DNA analyses of sediments. He considers them a very useful procedure. One that may even become “routine in the future”, according to him.
New Method Retrieves Ancient DNA from Sediments and Fossils
The study team was able to literally retrieve ancient DNA from dirt. They were successful in recovering genetic data from two of humanity’s extinct relatives. They found Neanderthals and Denisovans DNA, but not by searching for bones.
Instead, the researchers studied “empty caves” known to have housed hominins at one point in time. As such, they turned their attention to 7 archeological sites from Spain, France, Croatia, Belgium, and Russia.
There, they extracted data from the sediments lying on the cave floors. Based on this novel sediment source, the team established that the two hominin ancestors lived in between 14,000 to 550,000 years ago.
Science was already aware of the fact that different sediment components can actually bind DNA. This can help preserve its genetic records long after teeth, bones or other data sources decomposed or turned to dust.
The vast amount of genetic debris gathered on the cave floor over its thousands of years proved to be quite a challenge to sort through. As it is, the team detected ancient DNA from some 12 mammalian species including the wooly mammoths or rhinoceros, and the cave bears or hyenas.
However, they also struck gold and identified 9 samples of hominin DNA from 4 of the sites. These contained enough such genetic debris as to require a closer look.
Considered a breakthrough, this new type of analysis could potentially change future exploration and on-site study methods and techniques.
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